Although not as valuable as some resources linked to conflict, such as diamonds and gold, timber's easy access, availability, and demand can make its trade troubling. "Timber can be the first port of call for an armed conflict. All you need is an ox and a chain saw," said Global Witness Director Patrick Alley, opening a recent Wilson Center discussion that brought together representatives from international NGOs and the forest industry. Co-sponsored by ARD Inc., the Forests Dialogue, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Environmental Change and Security Program, and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, the event explored how best to identify and manage forest conflict, and also discussed cooperative efforts aimed at raising awareness.

Natural resources finance warfare, violent conflicts, and despotic regimes around the world. Timber is unique, due to the sheer number of people whose livelihoods depend upon it. According to Christine A. Pendzich, deputy director of the World Wildlife Fund's Global Forest Program, more than 60 million indigenous people live in forested areas and an additional 400 million-500 million people are dependent upon forests for income. "The rural poorest of the poor," these communities often compete for timber and other forest products, sometimes leading to conflict with governments or with each other. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Pendzich noted, forest conflicts impede impoverished communities' chances of peaceful, stable development.

According to Alley, the illicit and unsanctioned timber trade fueled the large-scale conflicts in Liberia and Cambodia. Liberia's Charles Taylor used the timber industry to export logs and import guns, financing several internal and external conflicts during his six-year presidency. Similarly, Cambodia's despotic Khmer Rouge extended their rule into the late ‘90s in large part due to money from timber, which they sold to the Thai military for upwards of $10 million-20 million per month. The regime collapsed, Alley believes, after the Thai-Cambodian border closed, blocking the timber from flowing out and the cash from flowing in. But Srey Chanthy, from the Agri-Business Institute in Cambodia, noted that forest conflict did not end with the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, because forests remain a vital source of income for Cambodians. The majority of the population subsists by farming and harvesting natural resources, with "about 12 percent of Cambodians negatively affected by conflicts in forest management." Chanthy noted that the problem will only grow worse as the population increases and forest lands decrease.

Mary Melnyk, senior advisor for natural resource management in USAID's Asia & Near-East Bureau, noted that development agencies must look beyond the conservation aspect to examine the human toll of forest conflict. "We're concerned about the ability to live and human rights abuses," she said. In most cases of forest conflict, she noted, the country involved is extremely politically unstable. She identified several political factors common to forest conflict areas in Asia and Africa, including weak or poor governance, lack of clear rights, and selective application of the law.

James Griffiths, director of the Sustainable Forest Products Industry at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in Asia, described how businesses can grow financially and watch what they are buying. "Forest conflict is part of the broader challenge of illegal logging and trade…it undermines sustainable forest management and creates significant market distortions." Griffiths outlined a strategy for combating illegal logging, which includes building alliances, improving information distribution on the specifics of illegal logging, as well as creating a rating system to grade countries' risk of illegal trade. He also noted that better governance could limit illegal trading and avoid penalizing legitimate operators or forest-dependent communities.

In addressing solutions for reducing forest conflict, the speakers all noted the importance of working with rural communities. Chanthy said, "The one thing we can do is empower the community through building their capacity. Most often these people don't know what they can do." Additionally, he stressed the creation of a collaborative environment: "Make sure that everybody knows the law and respects the rule of law, not the rule of the jungle." Similarly, Pendzich encouraged multi-sectoral action to build lower-level management systems while creating a global forest and trade network. Jim Schweithelm, senior associate at ARD, Inc., seconded many of the suggestions for empowering communities by informing them of their rights, but noted that businesses and consumers must be also be aware: "Consumers need to be informed about these issues. It might affect their consumption decisions."

Drafted by Alison Williams.